Joined by a small group of African American seniors, their grandchildren and some children from the local area, President Obama announced today that he was hanging a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, on loan from the Smithsonian Museum of American History, in the Oval Office.
The copy will be exhibited for six months before being moved to the Lincoln Bedroom where the original Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863.
In a nice bit of historic choreography, the president made the announcement on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the copy of the Proclamation is hanging above a 12 5/8" bronze bust of King by celebrated African-American sculptor Charles Alston -- the first African-American instructor at the Art Students League -- who died in 1977.
When the Smithsonian lent the bust of King to the President Bill Clinton's White House in 2000 to be displayed in the White House Library, that marked, believe it or not, the very first time that the image of an African-American was displayed in a public space in the White House.
"I think sometimes in celebration of Dr. King's birthday we act as if this history was so long ago," the president said today, "And the reason we brought together some elders and some young people very briefly was not just to visit the Oval Office and see the Emancipation Proclamation, which is going to be on loan to us, but it's also just to remind us that there were some extraordinarily courageous young people like Dr. Dorothy Height, like Mrs. Eleanor Banks and Romaine Thomas and her husband, and others who were actively involved in bringing about one of the great moments in United States history."
"Dr. Height has shared with us what it was like meeting Martin Luther King when he was a 15-year-old at Morehouse, visiting there," the president continued. "We heard from Ms. Glanton, Willie Glanton, who is a great activist in Iowa, about the work that she's done there on behalf of the civil rights movement, reminding us that it wasn't just isolated in some areas.
"I am especially proud to have the Harveys here -- Mr. Joseph Harvey and Ms. Mabel Harvey. Mr. Joseph Harvey is 105, and Ms. Mabel Harvey here is the spry young one at 102. And Ms. Harvey just now was whispering in my ear, as you guys were walking in, that this must be the Lord's doing, because we've come a mighty long way. That's what she said. And so that's wonderful to hear."
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. it declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free" -- but significantly, though its moral symbolism would come to mean more, the proclamation applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, meaning it didn't impact slavery in loyal border states or any parts of the Confederacy already under Northern control.